Biography

John Enoch Powell was born on 16 June 1912, the son of Albert Enoch Powell (1872–1956), a primary school head teacher, and Ellen Mary, née Breese (1886–1953), a teacher, of Stechford, Warwickshire. His mother gave up teaching in order to learn Greek and impart it to her son. He was educated at King Edward’s High School, Birmingham and Trinity College, Cambridge: an outstanding student, he achieved sufficient scholarships to cover the cost of his education. While at Cambridge, he was much influenced by the professor of Latin, the poet A. E. Housman. (He was later to publish four volumes of poetry.) He married Margaret Pamela (Pam), daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel L. E. Wilson, in 1952; they had two daughters.

He was a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge from 1934 to 1938 and was then appointed professor of Greek at the University of Sydney, making him the youngest professor in the British Empire. He published A Lexicon to Herodotus in 1938 followed by The History of Herodotus in 1939. He returned to England on the outbreak of war in order to serve in the Army.

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He served from 1939 to 1945 in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment (when he could not join as an Englishman, because he had no previous military service, he joined as an Australian) and on the General Staff. He rose rapidly through the ranks, exceptionally (though not uniquely) from private to brigadier, and at the age of thirty-two was one of the youngest brigadiers in the British army. He was awarded the MBE (military) in 1943 for ‘gallant and distinguished services in the Middle East’. His task was to assess intelligence reports and contribute to military planning – in effect to anticipate Rommel’s actions. He was then posted to India to serve on the South-East Command planning staff and fell in love with the country. After his wartime service, Powell decided to pursue a career in politics – essentially to fight for the Empire and especially India. By the time he entered the House of Commons the cause for which he wanted to fight had been lost, but he was already in love with the House of Commons. He served in the Conservative Parliamentary Secretariat and then the Research Department from 1945 until 1951, working alongside Reginald Maudling and Iain Macleod. His first candidacy was in the 1947 Normanton by-election. After nineteen unsuccessful attempts to be selected in other seats, he was adopted as the Conservative candidate for Wolverhampton South West; he was elected in the 1950 general election with a majority of 691 and served as the Member for the seat until February 1974. He enjoyed his highest majority, of 14,467, in the 1970 general election. He was a director of the London Municipal Society between 1952 and 1955.

After initially declining office, he accepted in 1955 the post of parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and two years later was promoted to Financial Secretary to the Treasury. One year after taking up the post, he resigned – along with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Peter Thorneycroft, and the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, Nigel Birch, over the Cabinet’s failure to support cuts in public expenditure. The following year, he declined a junior post in the Ministry of Education (because nothing had been offered to Thorneycroft) but returned to government in 1960 as Minister of Health and in 1962 was advanced to the Cabinet.

His Cabinet career was short lived. Along with Iain Macleod, he refused to serve in 1963 under Sir Alec Douglas-Home, believing that his support for Rab Butler made it too dishonourable to accept office in Douglas-Home’s government. Powell also believed that the way in which the outgoing premier, Harold Macmillan, had engineered the succession was essentially dishonest. When Douglas-Home resigned the party leadership in 1965, and new rules were introduced for the election of the leader, Powell put himself forward as a candidate, garnering fifteen votes. He served under the new leader, Edward Heath, as shadow Defence Secretary.

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On 20 April 1968 he addressed a meeting of the West Midlands Conservative Political Centre, of which he was president – his speech was circulated in advance by the West Midlands CPC and not the party Central Office – and delivered an attack on unchecked immigration from the Commonwealth to the United Kingdom. He used a classical allusion to Virgil, declaring, ‘Like the Roman, I seem to see “the river Tiber foaming with much blood”.’ Though the script, typed by his wife, had the quotation in Latin, he delivered it in English and it was soon dubbed the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. It was immediately denounced in the media and by party leaders: Heath sacked him from the shadow Cabinet. However, there were marches by workers in support of his stance, and opinion polls showed majority support for his views. It was a speech that both made him and destroyed him. Overnight, he became a national figure and a political pariah. He never held office again but spent the rest of his life as one of the nation’s most controversial politicians.

During the 1970–74 parliament, Powell was the leading Conservative critic of the Heath government, voting against it on 115 occasions. He opposed especially the U-turns on the economy and industry in 1971 and the European Communities Bill 1972, seeing the bill as a betrayal of British sovereignty. He was one of fifteen Tory MPs to vote against the government in 1972 in a vote of confidence on the second reading of the bill. The party leadership considered withdrawing the party whip from him, but concluded that this would simply give him added publicity as well as be counter-productive, given that he was so well entrenched in his constituency.

He declined to seek re-election in the February 1974 general election, regarding the premature election as ‘essentially fraudulent’, and recommended that voters give their support to whatever party had committed itself to renegotiating the Treaty of Rome and submitting it to the British people: in effect, the Labour Party. Having been credited with contributing to, or even being responsible for, the Conservative Party’s surprise win in the 1970 general election, he was now credited with helping defeat it in 1974.

A dedicated Unionist, he was adopted as the Ulster Unionist candidate for South Down and was elected in the general election of October 1974. He held the seat until 1987, narrowly holding on in the by-election in 1986, triggered when Unionist MPs resigned to force and fight by-elections in opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. He lost the seat by 731 votes in 1987. His time as an Ulster Unionist MP was somewhat fraught, the integrationist Powell clashing at times with his devolutionist Ulster colleagues.

The loss of his seat left him with no clear sense of purpose and no dedicated routine. He worked on a book on St Matthew’s Gospel, The Evolution of the Gospel, which appeared in 1994, and began work on a study of St John’s Gospel. He continued in public life with a range of speeches and articles – especially on the issue of European integration – but in 1992 was diagnosed as suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Towards the end of his life, he suffered a number of falls. He died on 8 February 1998.

A distinguished academic and soldier, Powell was an outstanding debater. His speeches were honed and compelling. His speech, delivered in the early hours of 28 July 1959, on the deaths of Mau Mau detainees in the Hola camp in Kenya, was one of the most outstanding delivered in the House of Commons in the latter half of the twentieth century. Denis Healey described it as ‘the greatest parliamentary speech I have ever heard’. His reputation after he returned to the back benches in 1968 was such that MPs would fill the chamber to hear his speeches.

He was noted for taking an independent line, even when in the shadow Cabinet. He opposed holding nuclear weapons and maintaining a presence east of Suez. His views were distinctive, at times verging on the extreme: his acute distrust of the USA, acquired during the war, led him to see the hand of the CIA in the death of Lord Mountbatten; he believed the Earl of Oxford penned the works of Shakespeare. Though he advanced powerful arguments in support of his beliefs, he made no effort to craft a body of supporters. He relied on eloquence rather than organisation. Though he drew other Conservative MPs into the lobby with him on most occasions that he opposed the Heath government, he never generated a coherent political philosophy. There were Powellites – MPs who agreed with him on a good many (though not all) issues – but no Powellism. He was, in essence, a Tory neo-liberal, wedded to institutions but believing in economic and social freedom.

His advocacy, not least of the free market, influenced others (including Margaret Thatcher), but he had few political achievements to his name. His greatest was in joining with Michael Foot to frustrate and eventually destroy the Parliament (No. 2) Bill in 1969 to reform the House of Lords. Powell – who co-authored The House of Lords in the Middle Ages – was a passionate supporter of the Upper House, the product of prescription. Though a great parliamentarian, he recognised his limitations as a politician. He admired the skills of Margaret Thatcher and her ability ‘to put up with things and go along with them, even though she doesn’t agree with them, until the time comes when they can be dealt with. Now not possessing that quality myself – having the loquacity which always impels me to say “I don’t agree” – I admire this.’ It made Thatcher, in his view, a superb politician. As Simon Heffer observed, Powell occupied the place of a philosopher rather than a practitioner, ‘a role for which baser skills are required’. Enoch Powell operated on a different plane.

Lord Norton - an extract from 'Enoch at 100'

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The J. Enoch Powell Literary Trust.